Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have always tried hard to contribute to my company. And yet, when I went to the Crucial Conversations Training, I realized I often did not express myself when I should to avoid making waves. This quality was actually cited on my yearly reviews as a weakness.
This year, I tried to change that. I confidently voiced my disagreements with processes or impending decisions in a tactful and respectful way—always supporting the final decision, even if I disagreed with it. Unfortunately, I got hit “right between the eyes” on my latest yearly review by my supervisor and was told that I undermined management. The few times I spoke up or disagreed were cited as examples! Where do I go from here?
Right between the eyes
Dear Right between the eyes,
I’m sorry for the disappointing comments on your latest annual review. Unfortunately, others have experienced the same shocking response when attempting to change the way they deal with crucial conversations. Let me suggest four reasons this may have happened and some advice to reflect on.
1. The devil they don’t know. Though you may have raised your crucial conversations perfectly, people were unprepared for your new behavior. They were prepared for the “devil they know” and interpreted your new behavior through the old lens. In other words, if they believe you only say 10% of what you really think, then the temperate concerns you raised probably appeared like violent opposition. My advice: if your behavior is about to change, always explain it in advance to those who might misinterpret it. You may do well to sit down with your boss and explain what you tried to do last year, and ask where you went amiss. This conversation will engage your boss in a dialogue that will force him or her to articulate his or her conclusions about you and potentially reconsider them as you share the intent behind your past behavior.
2. Not what but how. It could also be that your perception of your behavior is inaccurate. You may believe you came across very respectfully and tentatively, but that’s not how it appeared to others. For example, just because you use an even tone of voice does not mean people perceive you as respectful. If, for example, you said, “I disagree with the new policy because I think it is unfair,” no matter how calm your tone, your boss could hear it as insubordinate. My advice: ask for feedback as you make these attempts. Make your boss your coach by following up after a meeting where you tried new skills and ask what you did well or could have done better. This gives you a chance to course correct not only your behavior, but your boss’s “story” about your behavior.
3. Be clear about what you “don’t mean.” You may have been the picture of Crucial Conversations perfection and yet others felt defensive because they didn’t want dialogue, they wanted support. So, they saw any level of question as opposition. When you begin to change the culture of an organization where candor is not common, you need to go to extra lengths to clarify what you “don’t mean” after asking tough questions. My advice: take great care to let people know that you will support the final decision, and understand that this is not your decision to make. If you raise questions without clarifying any misunderstandings about where you stand on supporting the final decision, others are left to guess on their own—and may do so to your detriment.
4. Check in after disagreeing. Finally, I strongly suggest that after a public disagreement (even a respectful one), you follow up with any key players. Take advantage of the increased safety one-on-one to ask if you offended them and assure them of your respect and support. Often people put on a “game face” in the meeting, but are hurt or offended inside and carry that forward. This is especially true in a “nice” culture where people are very uncomfortable with public disagreement.
The bottom line is that you now have crucial conversations to hold with your boss and others. If you “Start with Heart”—clarify your personal intention to learn and improve—then you’re less likely to be defensive. Share your data—the comments from your performance review. Share your intentions—what you attempted last year. And ask them to help you understand what you should have done differently.
If you do this well, it’s likely to be a two-way learning experience. Others will learn more about you and your true intentions. And you may pick up a skill or two for avoiding future offense.
By all means, don’t give up on your goal to speak more honestly and respectfully. Make this year a year to “Analyze and Adjust” as you learn how to build on last year’s good efforts.